The 1960s was rather a bleak period in my life. The break up of our parents’ marriage, and the aftermath, had a profound affect on many lives. For me, in the sixties, it robbed me of my adolescence, at time when one should be free to learn, gain confidence and independence and, something always close to my heart, have adventures. This unusual friendship between my sister Margaret, her boyfriend at the time Fred and another girl, Rikki, provided just that, for which I will be forever grateful.
Fred had been called up. He was 19. The marble with his June 5th birthday had been drawn out of the barrel. National servicemen were dying in Vietnam. Glamorous pop star Norma Rowe, whose name had been on my pencil case for a while, was the Nasho poster boy, but the black and white TV screens showed the horror of guerrilla jungle warfare, in the kind of detail that would change the coverage of war for ever. After Vietnam, governments learnt to control the footage and the access. But in Vietnam we saw it all.
The Seekers' “If you go away On this summer day Then you might as well Take the sun away….” had been all over the radio that summer. Sixteen and prone to drama, I wallowed in the emotion of my lovely boyfriend being sent to Vietnam.
Fred was sent an appointment for a medical. Luckily he failed the medical and was reprieved. Another family friend who was an offical conscientious objector had to face court, and many went to jail.
A breath of fresh air from the outside world came rushing into my life bringing with it new books to read about sea otters in Far North Scotland and Moomins; movies; photography; Carlton; fairy toadstool rings under pine trees at the Basin and above all the magical world of the Australian High Country. Rikki had an interest in the romance of the High Country, as she loved Elyne Mitchell’s books, one of which is the classic The Silver Brumby, a favourite of children of our era. Other books written by Elyne Mitchell are also based in the High Country and tell of her early married life to Tom Mitchell who had grown up in the area.
They lived on his beautiful family property with a view of the Main Range. Here they pioneered the skiing in this area, getting to the tops by horse and pack horse and then walking up a steep ridge from Geehi carrying their skis. We too were captivated by this world.
Rikki corresponded regularly with Elyne Mitchell, who, as you can imagine, was a fascinating woman. Fred also had a connection to this area, as he had spent his childhood and adolescence near Corryong. I had been through the Snowy Mountains on a school trip and was intrigued by this new world. We were all hooked, and thus began the adventures in the mountains.
I will never forget the excitement and thrill of discovery of that first trip in Easter, 1968. We set off up the Hume on Thursday night in the car our father very kindly lent us. A little after midnight, as we drove between Tallangatta and Corryong, we were telling the current scary story of a man on the roof of the car with a severed head. It was especially scary when we stopped to have a sleep in a bus shelter by the side of the road, too tired to go on. At least we had the sense to stop, even if it was freezing, especially sleeping on a concrete floor.
We were so naive and badly equipped for our trip. We camped at Khancoban , all sleeping in the same tent, bizarre, but we only had one, and then drove up to Seaman’s Hut on the Kosciusko Road and walked across to Albina Hut.
Albina Hut is in a beautiful glacial valley just below Mt Townsend, which is only nineteen metres lower than Kosciusko. Dangerous country to walk in with no tent, no proper mountain clothes and no previous experience. Fred even carried a suitcase and an umbrella!!!! What a sight we must have been to the seasoned mountain walkers who were also staying in this hut that belonged to the Geehi Ski Club. I don’t remember anyone commenting or even warning us about the rapid weather changes.
It was fabulous. Loved every minute of the walk: the snow grass, the flowers the stunning granite tors and luckily the cobalt blue sky. My love affair with grasses began here, as did my joy of walking in the mountains.
Around that time Rikki, Sue and I moved in together to the flat at the back of our parents’ house. We ate with the rest of the family, but it was a taste of independence. Sue was studying Art teaching in the city, Rikki was working full time, Fred was in his final year of Photography at RMIT and I was in my final year of school. Somehow through that year, in between weekends away and nights at the movies or out to dinner, I managed to snatch enough study time, but only just. I squirrelled myself away in Mum’s bedroom for the last couple of weeks before the exams.
That summer, after Christmas, we travelled up the Hume again, this time in Rikki’s little Volkswagen, “Greymouse”. Fred had spent his childhood living in Walwa, just over the NSW border, where his parents both worked at the Butter Factory. Family friends owned a farm that backed onto the Murray River near Corryong. Fred had spent childhood holidays exploring the river and knew of an island, reachable by car for most of the way, through the farm tracks. We lugged all our camping gear through the bush, waded over the river and set up on the island. I remember heat and flies, but also ants. We had a bush table on which the camp stove sat. Cooking required a tarp, on the ground in front of the table, wetted with river water, to keep the tiny ants from swarming up one’s legs.
Most of the time we were blissfully alone. However I remember lying naked in the river, hearing voices in the distance and being invaded by a scout troop on a canoeing expedition. I remember my acute embarrassment, lying in the all too shallow river. There was pointing and laughter from the scouts and unsympathetic mirth from my companions.
One night we drove to Corryong to have dinner. Afterwards, in the dark, perhaps a little drunk, we found out way back along the farm tracks, hiked through the bush and waded across the river back to our camp. We had torches, but in those pre LED days, torches were dim affairs which barely gave any light.
My exam results came out during that week and a simultaneous announcement of tertiary placements. This involved buying the Age newspaper and looking up your name. Once again we made the trek out to the car and drove to town. I was full of trepidation. How could such a distracted year and so little work end up with a place at Monash? Somehow it did. I was offered place in Monash Arts and a studentship.
Our last trip together to the mountains was a year later, in January 1970. A very different experience but we followed our established pattern of the now many trips up here. We were on our way from Corryong to Khancoban all packed together in Rikki’s grey Beetle. In this small car we managed to pack four adults, two dogs, camping supplies and food. Unbelievable! It was very hot and the grass was straw coloured against a blue, blue sky when around the bend on the wrong side of the road came a car, driven by a worker from Snowy Hydro: a head-on in a rear-engined Volkswagen. We were very lucky.
Unhurt except for bumps on the head and a substantial coating of flour from an open packet in the food box we stumbled out of the car which was undrivable but only slightly damaged.
We did not get to the mountains, but we did get to stay with Elyne Mitchell at Towong Hill for two days, dogs and all. Mrs Mitchell happened to be driving past, saw the accident scene and took us in. With all our goods and chattels now in Mrs Mitchell’s Landcruiser, we drove back towards Corryong, but this time took the turn off to ‘Towong Hill’. We had so often passed the turn off, wondering about the house, hidden by large trees at the end of the small dirt road.
It was a marvellous experience, staying in that big old house, a large two story brick house, built in 1904, even though Mrs Mitchell was a slightly forbidding and austere presence.
We stayed upstairs in four of the many bedrooms. I remember white sheets and dark furniture and curtains blowing in the breeze. It was dark and cool downstairs, when we came down to breakfast the next morning. All the meals were served in the large formal dining room adjacent to a huge country kitchen. I remember Mrs Mitchell had biscuits, fresh tomatoes and herbs for lunch. No wonder she cut such a lean athletic figure.
After we had been introduced to the many lovely farm dogs and seen the horses and stables, Mrs Mitchell suggested that a swim might be beneficial for our aches and pains. We drove down the hill to the river flats and the Mitchell's favourite swimming hole in a billabong of the Murray River. Bliss! It was still quite hot.
A last dinner in this world away and then the long drive back to reality. Fred’s brother Phillip was picking us up in the morning.
We did not realise at the time that we would not go to Albina Hut together again. Somehow that accident fractured the foursome but the friendships formed were to continue in a different forms for each of us.